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My Story Part 1 – By Portia Heynes

I was always different – this was not easy back in the 1970s.

I was raised in Athlone, Cape Town, in a very entrepreneurial family. My family were street vendors who sold fruit, vegetables and food to factory employees in Epping. They also ran a cartage contracting business: they transported building materials in trucks to erect Atlantis as we know it today.

My story is very relevant to what is happening today. Athlone was synonymous with the Trojan horse massacre of 1985: three young people were killed protesting against the apartheid government and equal education. I was in Matric in 1985 – protests, being tear gassed and no school was the order of the day. It made sense at the time as I was fighting for a better education.

So where did my journey begin?

I was ridiculed when I was growing up because I looked different and held views that others did not understand. I learnt to suppress my thoughts and opinions, as they were insignificant at the time. I did not understand that this was my gift.

For the first 16 years of my life, my family and I lived in a separate entrance, one of four, in my grandparent’s backyard. We had a room and a kitchen and no access to water or ablution facilities. My father could not obtain a mortgage, so he owner- built. I did not have many friends as I was embarrassed to bring them home.

The 1985 boycotts came and I only attended classes halfway through Standard 9 and periodically in Standard 10. At the time many students explored completing their matric through a college; my parents could not afford the fees, so this was not an option. After evaluating my options I wrote the subs in March 1986 with only two weeks to study, and just managed to pass. I had a Matric certificate which provided me with a “ticket” to the game.

Was this the right thing to do? In hindsight, yes, given my situation and what I now know today.

I learnt the following lessons from fighting for education, which I can share with today’s youth:

  • I too believed in fighting for a cause which was about equal education, rights and opportunities. The “how” though is important. You need to be prepared for the reality of the choices you make and their consequences.
  • In retrospect, I was naïve. There were times I followed the crowd, was indoctrinated and led by leaders who had no strategy on how to support us, when we faced the dilemma of not knowing how we would complete matric- there were so many of us. I have learnt that some leaders start out with good intent, but then sell their soul to personal agendas, power and self-preservation. Where are their voices today?

So for the first time in 1985 I took ownership of my life and education made a decision to complete my Matric despite the challenges and criticism.

  • “Choose your battles carefully and rather aim to win the War”. I chose to complete my Matric to survive. Today I lead Learning & Development divisions in listed companies. Beside my job, I have a role and the most appropriate analogy is to see me as a Robin Hood, where I access company funds to provide learning that will not only change people’s lives positively but contribute to the sustainability of these companies and society at large. It’s about leaving a legacy.
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  1. Viola Manuel Viola Manuel

    I know Portia as an absolute inspiration. Well done.

  2. Andrew Naidoo Andrew Naidoo

    Hi Portia
    I am proud to reflect on my greatest memories ever in the shaping of the history and future of this beloved country , in 1985 , my first year at UWC brings to mind the understanding and shaping of the sacrifices made to provide opportunities for generations to come.
    Keep up the good work!

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